Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in THE CORPSE VANISHES (Monogram 1943)

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A little over a week ago I wrote about Bela Lugosi’s pairing with The East Side Kids , and mentioned what’s been come to know as “The Monogram Nine”. These Poverty Row horrors were ultra-low-budget schlockfests made quickly for wartime audiences, and though the films weren’t very good, they gave Bela a chance to once again have his name above the titles. From 1941 to 1944, the Hungarian cranked out the rubbish: THE INVISIBLE GHOST, BLACK DRAGONS, THE CORPSE VANISHES, BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT, THE APE MAN, VOODOO MAN, RETURN OF THE APE MAN, and the two East Side Kids entries. Let’s take a look at a typical Lugosi vehicle, 1943’s THE CORPSE VANISHES.

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Our story concerns young, virginal society brides who keep dying at the altar, their corpses hijacked by mysterious Dr. Lorenz (Bela, of course). The brides receive an “unusual orchid” whose “peculiar sweet odor” causes them to go into a state of suspended animation so Lorenz can extract their glandular fluids to keep his ancient wife young (she’s “at least 70 or 80 years old!”). Plucky girl reporter Pat Hunter finds some clues and investigates, leading her to seek out Lorenz, who’s an expert on horticulture. Hitching a ride with Dr. Foster, an assistant to Lorenz, they make their way to Lorenz’s sinister house, and Pat is greeted by mean bitch Countess Lorenz with a slap in the face!

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A storm outside forces Pat and Foster to spend the night at the old creep joint (as Sammy Petrillo would’ve called it), and Pat is visited by Angel, a creepoid henchman who lives in the cellar with his mom Fagah and dwarf brother Toby. Pat follows the creepoid through a secret panel in the armoire, then ditches him, but he discovers she followed him and follows her while munching on a turkey leg from the Monogram catering truck. She stumbles onto the missing corpses and hides while creepoid has fun petting their hair. Lorenz is naturally pissed about creepoid’s bumbling and strangles him.

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Pat has also discovered that Lorenz and the Countess sleep in his-and-her coffins, which kinda grosses her out. Lorenz explains this by saying, “I find a coffin more comfortable than a bed. Many people do, my dear”, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Pat and her newspaper come up with a scheme to trap Lorenz by staging a phony wedding, which goes awry when the fiendish doctor kidnaps Pat. A shootout with the cops results in Toby taking a bullet as Lorenz hightails it back to his creep joint to extract glandular fluids from Pat. Fagah, angry because both her freakish sons are now dead, stops him by plunging a knife in his back, then all kinds of chaos ensues until the cops barge in, late as usual. The case of the missing corpses is now solved, and Pat and Foster get married, supposedly to live happily ever after.

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Bela Lugosi spends most of his time lurking about and mugging for the camera. He’s does his best to make things work, but is saddled with a bad script and bad supporting cast. Luana Walters (Pat) is nice to look at, especially in those 40’s fashions, but her acting’s strictly amateur night. Tristam Coffin (Foster) is boring, and was put to much better use as a Western villain and serial hero (KING OF THE ROCKET MEN). Elizabeth Russell as the Countess is good, even using a Hungarian accent to compliment Bela. She was given much better material in her films with Val Lewton (CAT PEOPLE, THE SEVENTH VICTIM  , CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, BEDLAM ). Minerva Urecal (Fagah) just flat-out overacts, as do her creepoid sons (Frank Moran and Angelo Rossitto). Other Familiar Faces (who probably wanted to hide) include Vince Barnett, Kenneth Harlan, Joan Barclay, and George Eldridge.

While watching I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to Ed Wood’s BRIDE OF THE MONSTER. There’s mad doctor Bela of course, the plucky girl reporter, the creepoid who strokes female victim’s hair (hello, Lobo!), and Bela whipping his henchman. I’m sure Ed saw this film and used these elements while concocting his script ten years later. Another similarity is the incredibly cheap sets that look like they’d fall over in a stiff breeze! THE CORPSE VANISHES, despite it’s faults, is fun to watch for Lugosi fans eager to see our hero play to the balcony again. It’s not a great film by any stretch, but for connoisseurs of bad cinema in general, and Lugosi’s infamous “Monogram Nine” in particular, it’s definitely must-viewing!

Happy Birthday Burt Lancaster!: THE KILLERS (Universal 1946)

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Yeah I know, I said right here on this blog yesterday that I was going to take a week off after my marathon “Halloween Havoc” series. But since it’s Burt Lancaster’s birthday (b. 11/2/13, d. 10/20/94) I thought I’d watch his film debut, THE KILLERS. Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and directed by Robert Siodmak, THE KILLERS is one of the best in the film noir canon, full of double-and-triple-crosses, great acting, and the beautiful Ava Gardner as the sexy but dangerous femme fatale.

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The story unfolds mostly in flashback, as insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) looks into the murder of Peter Lund, aka ‘The Swede’ (Lancaster). We learn along with Reardon that Lund was really Ole Anderson, an ex-fighter and ex-con from Philly who drifts into a life of crime. Swede falls madly for the devious Kitty Collins (Gardner), whose boyfriend Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) is serving time. When he gets out, Kitty dumps Swede for Colfax. Big Jim’s planned a foolproof payroll robbery worth a quarter million bucks, and enlists Swede and two others for the heist. I won’t get into the details if you haven’t seen this one yet, but suffice it to say things go decidedly downhill for Swede from here.

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The opening sequence featuring William Conrad and Charles McGraw as the hitmen who blast Swede is memorable for its dark, menacing tone, as the thugs take over a diner to wait for Swede, then slowly creep up the stairs of his apartment to blow him away. Elwood “Woody” Bredell’s cinematography shows us a world of shadow and danger, and Miklos Rozsa adds an excellent score. (By the way, the young actor playing Nick who goes to warn Swede? That’s Phil Brown, later to become Uncle Owen in 1977’s STAR WARS!)

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Lancaster plays The Swede as a naïve dupe who’s in over his head and no match for the devious Kitty Collins. Gardner is smoking hot as Kitty, a duplicitous dame if there ever was one. The cast is peppered with fine character performances  from the likes of Sam Levene, Jeff Corey, Donald MacBride, Jack Lambert (particularly nasty as Dum-Dum), and Vince Barnett. Screenwriter Anthony Veiller has uncredited assistance from John Huston and Richard Brooks. Producer Mark Hellinger went on to work again with Lancaster in the classic prison drama Brute Force the next year, along with Levene and Corey. Tough as a two-dollar steak, THE KILLERS was remade by Don Siegel in 1964 with Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan in the Albert Dekker role (it was his last film). While the remake is good, the original is better (I’ve seen them both). So happy birthday, Burt Lancaster…and now back to my regularly scheduled break!